South Africa Covid strain: coronavirus variant travel ban explained, is it more infectious - and will vaccines work?
The new strains are cause for concern in the UK, but just how more infectious is the variant from South Africa, and will existing vaccines work against it?
Following last week’s news of a new, UK strain that resulted in the creation of the new Tier 4 restrictions in England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on 23 December that two cases of a South Africa-borne strain have been identified in the UK.
The two cases were contacts of people who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks, and the Health Secretary said the cases and their close contacts have been quarantined.
Here is everything you need to know.
What is the new ban?
From 9am on Christmas Eve, visitors arriving into England who have been in or travelled through South Africa in the previous 10 days are not permitted entry and direct flights are banned.
The ban excludes cargo and freight without passengers, and also does not include British and Irish nationals, visa holders and permanent residents, who will be able to enter but are required to self-isolate for 10 days along with their household.
Any exemptions usually in place – including for those related to employment – will not apply and passengers arriving in England from South Africa after 9pm on Wednesday cannot be released from self-isolation through Test to Release.
Mr Hancock added: “Anyone in the UK who has been in South Africa in the past fortnight and anyone who is a close contact of someone who has been in South Africa in the last fortnight, must quarantine immediately.
“They must restrict all contact with any other person whatsoever.”
The law will be changed to cover the new restrictions, but Mr Hancock said the measures are “temporary while we investigate further this new strain.”
Is the South Africa variant more infectious?
It is believed that the new South African variant could be more infectious than both the original dominant version of Covid-19, and the new UK strain.
At his Downing Street press briefing, Mr Hancock said: “This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant discovered in the UK.”
Latest figures suggest the South African strain was behind a record number of people being taken to hospital there.
Infectious diseases expert Dr Susan Hopkins explained that the new variant already discovered in the UK, which has forced large parts of southern England into Tier 4 restrictions, is different to that found in South Africa.
Dr Hopkins – who was also present at the Downing Street press conference – said: “The new variant in the UK which we’ve identified is very different to the variant in South Africa, it’s got different mutations.
“Both of them look like they are more transmissible. We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we’ve been studying that with great detail with academic partners.
There is still much to learn about the new South African strain, and further investigation is set to take place at Porton Down, the Wiltshire science park which is the site of Public Health England.
Will the vaccine work against it?
“We have no evidence at the moment that the vaccine will not work,” said Dr Hopkins.
She said that lack of evidence actually suggests there is “strong evidence” the existing Pfizer vaccine will work because it “produces a strong immune response and it’s broad and acts against lots of variation in the virus.”
What are the new restrictions in England?
The news of the South African strain comes after the government confirmed more parts of England will move into a higher tier of lockdown restrictions from Boxing Day.
More of the east and south east of England will be placed into Tier 4 as of 12.01am on 26 December, while other parts will move into Tier 3 and Tier 2.
The change means that 24 million people will now face Tier 4 restrictions over Christmas, accounting for 43 per cent of the population of England.